Community-College Accountability Measure Still Holds Policy-Making Potential

April 23, 2013

A tool being developed "by community colleges, for community colleges" to measure their effectiveness is still not ready, but its proponents hope wider adoption through its testing phase will give it influence in policy making.

The sector decries existing metrics, particularly the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as Ipeds, for making community colleges look bad by not counting many of their students and much of their work. According to Ipeds, only 20 percent of students at community colleges graduate within three years, but that figure excludes part-time students and those who transfer, not to mention students pursuing career and technical education, for example, or a GED.

That's why the American Association of Community Colleges is designing the new gauge, known as the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees and the College Board. After a few years of discussion, some presidents were hopeful at the community-college group's annual meeting here this week that the tool could help the sector in talks both with the U.S. Department of Education, which is reforming Ipeds, and with Congress, as it prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

The public accountability that federal and state lawmakers seek is one goal of the framework, known as the VFA. The other is institutional improvement. On both counts, the project's proponents say, it's necessary to know actual results for students at community colleges, and this tool will provide that information.

The VFA aims to measure students' progress not only in terms of who gets a degree, but, for example, if they pass out of developmental courses, how quickly they earn academic credit, and if they transfer to another institution. Beyond credit-bearing academic programs, the tool will track such data as students' pass rates for licensure examinations and the employment rates among those who enrolled in adult basic education.

"If you're going to measure us, measure us by what we do," said Sandra L. Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, which plans to start using the tool in the fall. Sinclair Community College also intends to sign on, said Laura Mercer, director of research, analytics, and reporting at the Ohio institution.

Hard Truths, Potential Discomfort

The community-college association made a serious push for the VFA this week, running a digital "studio" here for campus officials to take a look at the colorful dashboards under development. In a presentation, postcards on each seat urged attendees to complete and submit the "beta-testing commitment form." About 80 colleges are in the test phase so far, and the association plans a rollout for November.

Meanwhile, the tool is already getting some traction. Pennsylvania adopted it last year to assess its 14 community colleges, and Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio have expressed interested in doing the same, said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success for the community-college group.

But not every college is ready to commit. Some campus officials worry about the cost of collecting more-comprehensive data. Others are wary of the hard truths more information may reveal. Potential discomfort about how the data would be used has made the association proceed cautiously, Mr. Phillippe said.

And the VFA is not the only instrument of its kind. This month, for example, the California Community Colleges released a scorecard that breaks down, by gender, age, and ethnicity, how colleges are performing in remedial education, job training, student retention, graduation, and completion.

For now, the development of the VFA has focused on student progress and outcomes. Its two other components, tracking community colleges' performance on "work-force, economic, and community development" and on "student-learning outcomes," are in their early stages. Collecting state wage data and defining learning outcomes have proved difficult, presenters at the meeting said.

But the project has already conquered other challenges, said Karen A. Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania, and co-chair of an accountability team for the community-college group. The decision of which students to track with the tool wasn't easy, she said. Some campus leaders wanted to include only degree-seeking students, for example, but a consistent definition of "degree seeking" proved elusive.

With all students in credit-bearing courses, the results might not be as pretty, said Ms. Stout, but they'll be more legitimate. And when the VFA develops in the direction of adult basic education and career and technical education, she said, everybody who comes to a community college will be part of the measure.

For it to get real traction, Ms. Stout thinks, about 70 to 80 percent of the nation's 1,200 community colleges must sign up and start reporting their data. That's a long way to go, but she's hopeful, having witnessed a lot of interest at the meeting this week.

"I see momentum," Ms. Stout said. "It has to just be a wave in order to have the national policy influence we think this tool could have."

Corrections (4/25/2013, 1:30 p.m.): This article initially stated incorrectly that the Voluntary Framework of Accountability was behind schedule. In fact, the American Association of Community Colleges completed, as planned, a phase of pilot-testing the tool's metrics, and is now beta-testing the tool itself. The article also misspelled the surname of an official at the association and gave him an out-of-date title. He is Kent Phillippe, not Philippe, and he is associate vice president for research and student success, not a senior research associate. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.